The 20th century was not kind to monarchies. The aftermath of the First World War effectively brought royal rule to an end in much of the European continent, often following a bloody transition of power such as in Russia where the Romanovs met their fate at the hands of Bolshevik rifle fire in the basement of their palatial prison.
Those monarchs who did remain in power, like much of their constituencies, went through a period of self-reflection in the wake of the carnage of war. Proponents of reform demanded that the rulers’ control over their political bodies be loosened, and the monarchs, who were well aware of the revolutionary danger that a disgruntled populace represented, reluctantly acquiesced. Though the United Kingdom arguably underwent the least amount of political change during this period, critics wondered what the point of the institution was if the role of the monarch had become largely ceremonial.
It’s in this uncertain atmosphere that the Netflix historical drama, The Crown, takes place, chronicling the transformation of Elizabeth Windsor, a vivacious young idealist, into the ordained leader of her nation as Queen Elizabeth II.
Elizabeth (played by Claire Foy) wasn’t born to be the heir apparent to the throne. At the time of her birth she was third in line, behind both her father and her uncle, Edward, the Prince of Wales (Alex Jennings). When her grandfather, George V, dies in 1936, her uncle becomes King Edward VIII. In a shocking scandal Edward abdicates the throne in favor of marrying divorced American socialite, Wallis Simpson, and this act places George VI (Jared Harris), Elizabeth’s father, on the throne. The Crown opens in 1951, with a hacking George VI chain-smoking packs of Benson & Hedges as his health quickly deteriorates. After having a lung removed, he prepares his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, for her time on the seat of power. Ultimately, George has even less time than he thought, and with only the most basic instructions on how to be a ruler, Queen Elizabeth II succeeds him on February 6, 1952.
Immediately Elizabeth faces the need to balance her role as Queen with her personal life and family. Suddenly even seemingly minute decisions about her household, including those dealing with her husband Prince Philip (the former Dr. Who, Matt Smith) and her two young children, undergo scrutiny from Parliament. Philip, a deeply independent and proud Navy veteran, must relinquish his family name so Elizabeth’s dynastic rule won’t be threatened, an act which both demeans and emasculates the prideful Crown Prince. Elizabeth’s relationship with her sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), is also strained as the public learns of Margaret’s affair with Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), a former RAF pilot and equerry to the royal family. Margaret and Peter capture the public’s attention and adoration, while Elizabeth’s role as sovereign forces her to keep the relationship at arm’s length, causing considerable controversy both within the family and in the tabloids. Throughout The Crownthe metaphorical weight of Elizabeth’s role not only sits heavily on her head; it also causes considerable consternation to those even remotely acquainted with the royal family.
Aiding her in the transition is perhaps the most iconic man in modern British history, the 78-year old Sir Winston Churchill (John Lithgow). Much like the royal family, Churchill’s role in government is constantly being brought into question by both Parliament and the press, and many see him as a ceremonial holdover from World War II. He is crass, outspoken and ill-tempered, gaining more enemies in the government by the day. Following a series of strokes that he foolishly attempts to hide from the Queen, Churchill begins to see his role as a stand-in for her deceased father and he attempts to instruct Elizabeth on her role as sovereign. On his 80thbirthday a grateful public commissions the artist Graham Sutherland (Stephen Dillane of Game of Thrones) to paint his portrait, and when Churchill sees the realistic depiction of his aging face, he sees his time at the top of the political world coming to an end. Lithgow’s stellar performance as the iconic Churchill is deserving of specific praise; this is no caricature or impression but an intense analysis of Churchill and the forces that drive him to continue his public service career even at this late point in his life.
Perhaps The Crown’smost intriguing character is Edward, who after his abdication receives the title of Duke of Windsor from his brother, George VI. Edward’s choice of love over power devastates the nation and threatens the monarchy. While George sat on the throne, Edward was effectively banished from the United Kingdom, and he returns to his homeland for the first time under Elizabeth to assist in her transition to power. In the scene where Elizabeth first greets him, she indicates that much like the rest of the country she never forgave him for his decision and her internal conflict with power and fame is on full display. Edward once again enters the spotlight in the wake of Margaret’s scandalous affair with Peter Townsend, with whom he is a natural ally. Edward’s specter hangs over the royal family once again, highlighting a constant tension between duty and love that underscores the series.
One of the most common (and understandable) criticisms of monarchical rule is the privileged status that the royal family has over the common people. The ostentatious manner with which the royals live seems to underscore that divide, and there are many instances in the show where Elizabeth is confronted with the background and (lack of) education her family bequeathed upon her. However in my estimation, the series doesn’t focus on privilege; in fact it can be argued that the royal family’s power is a curse that splashes the intimate details of their lives across every tabloid, with each decision relentlessly criticized. Philip, in one of the most poignant scenes of the series, underscores the real danger that Elizabeth’s power represents as he fears for the safety of his children if a revolution were to break out. As the son of Greek royalty, he saw his grandfather assassinated by an anarchist years before and warns that a revolution in England isn’t out of the question. However, Elizabeth’s steadfast adherence to the tenets of the crown, as well as her constant political neutrality secures her sovereignty during an era of European instability.
The Crown is a show with a wide appeal, perhaps too wide if I could offer a slight criticism. It appears to me the show might have trouble finding the right audience; its adherence to historical nuance and detail might run contrary to Netflix’s traditionally young audience, though the show will capture much of the Downton Abbey crowd with its rich depictions of ostentatious wealth and royalty. The characters seem true to their historical counterparts, allowing for an intense character exploration that shines insight into both the writers’ intent as well as the historical namesakes themselves. Not only would I recommend The Crown to fellow history enthusiasts, but I would also recommend it to anyone looking for a true-to-form period piece rife with intrigue and richly developed characters and themes.